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Nuclear Warfare: The Decision to Make It Worse

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The dangers of a possible nuclear conflict with North Korea were brought home by a false incoming missile alert in Hawaii two years ago, which left islanders terrified and unsure of what to do. A recent survey found that more than half of the world’s millennials believe that a nuclear attack of some kind will take place during this decade. And just a few days ago the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved its famous Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds to midnight, the closest setting to apocalypse it has ever had. This action reflected not just the ever-present possibility of nuclear warfare, but also the urgent crisis of climate change, as well as the looming emergence of disruptive technologies, such as cyber warfare, artificial intelligence, and genetic engineering, each with the potential to undermine society and destabilize international relations. 

Fears about nuclear warfare

Fears about nuclear warfare were at their greatest when the Soviet Union still existed. Depending upon one’s age and perspective, the Cold War may seem a still tangible presence, a receding memory, or something only read or heard about. But seventy years ago this week, on 31 January 1950, President Harry S. Truman made a momentous decision that capped five months of intense debate within the United States government, military, and scientific establishments. 

Truman decided that development would proceed with the hydrogen bomb, a weapon with a destructive power 1,000 times greater than that of the atomic bombs that had been used against Japan at the close of World War II. Those first weapons had been terrible enough, but thermonuclear devices presented for the first time the real possibility that much of human civilization might be annihilated in a full-scale war. Indeed when the hydrogen bomb did go forward, and both the United States and the Soviet Union staged successful above-ground tests of it, the Bulletin moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock to two minutes before midnight, the closest setting to catastrophe it would ever reach during the Cold War.

The hydrogen bomb

Who argued for and against the H-bomb decision? What were their expectations, hopes, and fears regarding the policies of the United States and the Soviet Union? How did they approach making a decision as monumental as going ahead with what is still history’s most terrifying and destructive weapon? 

Those involved included Secretary of State Dean Acheson, State Department policy experts George Kennan and Paul Nitze; Army generals Leslie Groves and James “Jumpin’ Jim” Gavin; Atomic Energy Commission chairman David Lilienthal and commission members Henry Smyth and Lewis Strauss; physicists J. Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, Luis Alvarez, Isidor Isaac Rabi, and Hans Bethe; and Member of Congress Henry “Scoop” Jackson and controversial congressional aide William Borden. Despite the high regard with which many (if not all) of these people are held in history, the debate among them quickly became marked by the effects of bureaucratic confusion, distortion, complexity, secrecy, isolation, intensity, and bitterness.

The General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, 1947; six of the seven people shown here were interviewed as part of this project.

Truman’s H-bomb decision

Super Bomb: Organizational Conflict and the Development of the Hydrogen Bomb tells the story of how Truman’s decision came to be. The story behind the book begins in the mid-1950s, when Warner R. Schilling, then a 31-year-old assistant professor at Columbia University’s Institute of War and Peace Studies, interviewed 66 key participants in the H-bomb decision, including all of the individuals mentioned above, in an effort to reconstruct not just what happened but what factors brought it about. Schilling was remarkably successful in his ability to get these interviews, some of which were conducted a second or third time. Lilienthal told him at one point, “You are a persistent young man,” while Rabi believed Schilling to be a lawyer due to his highly developed cross-examination technique.

A project finally completed

Unfortunately, Schilling was never able to write the book he intended on the subject. After his death in 2013, the project was picked up by Ken Young, a historian of the early Cold War period at King’s College, London. Young used Schilling’s heretofore unseen interviews, along with other recently available archival material, to write a narrative that explores the organizational fault lines underlying the 1959–50 debate, and then to extend the story several years past that point.

Because the opponents of H-bomb development did not give up after Truman made his decision in 1950, but rather carried on their resistance in the course of disputes over tactical nuclear weapons, continental air defense, and other aspects of US defense policy. Young establishes that much of the opposition to the H-bomb was actually a proxy battle over the morality of targeting large civilian populations as part of strategic bombardment, and over the growing role of the Strategic Air Command in American military policy. 

US H-bomb test, 1958.

Very sadly, Ken Young passed away last year. But the questions raised by this work, set at the juncture of government and science, military and morality, remain today. Given the nature of the Soviet Union, the H-bomb decision was not an easy one then, and not all of the issues invoked by the Doomsday Clock’s latest tick-tock have a clear answer today. Nonetheless, it is fair to ask now, just as the people on the losing side of the H-bomb debate did 70 years ago, whether the world is willing to stop and take note of where it is going, and potentially take a very different path.

Jonathan L. Schilling is a software engineer who has published articles in journals in both computer science and political science and who assisted in the preparation and editing of Super Bomb.

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